Ryan Briscoe

Next up for IndyCar: The ‘Mega’ Month of May

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If you are related to or live with a race fan, and he or she starts to hum ‘It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,’ don’t be alarmed.

Because for many race fans around the world, the month of May is effectively a second holiday season.

And the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend is our Christmas/Hanukkah/Chrismukkah (remember that one?)/Festivus: The Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500, and Coca-Cola 600, all in one day.

What neat gifts. But for those who follow IndyCar, they’ll be getting one more present this May.

The Verizon IndyCar Series will still have its homecoming at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but it’s gotten bigger – and a bit different. Call it the ‘Mega’ Month of May at the Brickyard, as the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis on IMS’ revamped road course (May 10) emerges as a lead-in for our beloved Greatest Spectacle in Racing (May 25).

While I’m not certain that the GP of Indy has been able to capture every heart within the IndyCar fan base, I sense that with two weeks to go, some of the uncertainty has been replaced with intrigue.

It helps that the key players are itching to see what all that construction work inside the Speedway over the winter and early spring has yielded.

“It’s a new challenge for everybody,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay after his win yesterday at Barber Motorsports Park. “That’s the great thing about it, everybody starts from scratch there.

“It may be that the Grand Prix of Indianapolis will have its own type of setup. It may be similar to some tracks [we already race on]. We don’t know yet. That’s the challenge we’re all looking forward to.”

He and the rest of the field won’t have to wait much longer to find out what sort of challenge they’re in for, as the first test on the IMS road circuit comes Wednesday.

But while the GP of Indy is next up on the schedule, the ‘500’ remains the biggest prize of all.

Calendar-wise, preparations for the 98th Running don’t offically get started until May 11, the day after the GP. But they’ll begin in earnest one day before the road course test on Tuesday, when NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Kurt Busch and 1995 Indy champion Jacques Villeneuve tackle the 2.5-mile IMS oval.

Busch, the first driver in a decade to attempt the Indy 500-Coke 600 double, will be working through his Rookie Orientation Program for Andretti Autosport, while Villeneuve will undergo his Refresher Test (the final two stages of ROP) for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

It’ll be a busy two days, and it’ll give us an idea of what we could be in for this May at the world’s greatest racecourse.

So again, if you find that your favorite race fan is busting out holiday carols for seemingly no apparent reason, just give a knowing smile and be on your way.

However, feel free to call for help if they take to sipping egg nog. There are some seasonal lines you just don’t cross, after all.

Q&A: New Porsche Supercup champion Sven Mueller

Photos: Porsche AG
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On Sunday, Sven Mueller secured the 2016 Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup at Circuit of The Americas, thus becoming the third driver who’s clinched the title at the Supercup season finale in Austin since the track first hosted the series in 2014 (Earl Bamber won in 2014, Phillip Eng last year).

Mueller, in his third year in the Porsche Junior program, claimed a double title this year with both the Supercup and Porsche Carrera Cup Deutschland championships.

He entered the weekend only two points ahead of fellow Junior driver Matteo Cairoli (135-133), but a second-place finish coupled with a DNF for Cairoli following Saturday’s first race left him needing only to score one additional point to win the title on Sunday. He finished in eighth place on the road, and that was enough for the Lechner MSG Racing Team driver to do it.

Mueller won three races and scored eight podium finishes in 10 races, to beat Cairoli 162-151 in points despite Cairoli winning four races. The third Porsche Junior competing in Supercup, Mathieu Jaminet, used a weekend sweep of the two races at COTA to finish third in the standings with 146 points, and having scored three wins.

We caught up with Mueller, who’s also raced in the U.S. in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship on a couple of occasions this year in a GT Daytona class Porsche 911 GT3 R (Frikadelli Racing in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Alex Job Racing at Road America), prior to Sunday’s race where he ultimately clinched the title.

For the 24-year-old who lives near Frankfurt, the Supercup title could well be a springboard to bigger things (more here from Porsche Newsroom):

MotorSportsTalk: This is your third year. What have you learned this year that has allowed you to take that next step as a driver compared to previous seasons?

Sven Mueller: “I feel my evolution as a driver is huge. In my first year in a Porsche, I also had quite good speed, but to finish the race was not always the goal. The speed was there, but the consistency and all this stuff, I learned from year-to-year. And especially in my third year, the important things that were around the track and racing, yeah, I also improved a lot. This year, my goal is the championship. Last week, I had already won championship in Porsche Carrera Cup and I was working three years to get this, and hopefully I can get my second championship today.”

MST: How has the competition level been this year with some of the new drivers?

SM: “Every year, you have new drivers. I think because now I’m at a really good level and I see that Matteo and Mathieu they are also really good. For me, this year is the hardest season I’ve ever had. I won only three times, Matteo won four times, Mathieu twice (before this weekend). We’re always on the podium and in qualifying, we’re always within a thousandth of a second. This shows how close the championship is.”

Mueller at Spa. Photo: Porsche AG
Mueller at Spa. Photo: Porsche AG

MST: How nice is it knowing driver talent makes so much of a different in this championship?

SM: “It does. This is a one-make Cup, it’s the same type of car, but also the teams they put quite a lot of effort to build up the car set-up wise that is the quickest for quali-simulation and also for quali-runs (qualifying runs). To have a really good car, it’s easier for a driver to handle this. To have a good car and a good driver, that’s the whole package. You can’t win with a bad car and good driver. The package always has to be perfect. For example, in qualifying, if you miss one of these parameters – being not 100 percent focused or the set-up is not 100 percent right – you can’t get the pole position. In Super Cup, to get the pole position or to win the race, everything has to be 100 percent.”

MST: What do you like about this track?

SM: “In 2014, I was here, so I had some experience in the dry. But Austin, or COTA, is by far the most difficult track at first for the driver because you have 21 corners and it’s so technical. For example, Turns 2 through 5 are really quick and all the corners are building up to the next corner. So if you start wrong entering the first corner, you’re going to end up in a mess. And the second thing is the car. It’s very difficult. The car and tires cannot rest, so they’re always under pressure. You only have one straight where the tire pressure and temperature can go down a bit, but Austin is really, really difficult. Yesterday, we had 14 laps and it felt really, really long – by far the longest race we’ve had in the season so far.”

MST: You’ve raced here now on multiple occasions. What do you like of the atmosphere of racing in the U.S.?

SM: “I really like racing in America. Daytona, I think, was not the best result I’ve ever had, but the whole week in Daytona, it was crazy and really nice. The racing and all the strategy with the team, it’s complex and difficult and you have to understand it. But with all the different manufacturers, to do proper racing, I really like it. And the fans, you can speak with them; in Europe, it’s a bit different. It’s also nice, but the Americans are really open and they’re not scared about asking questions or doing photos. I really like that.”

McLaren matched best ’16 result at COTA, 40 years to day after Hunt title

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo leads a line of cars including Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico driving the (21) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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October 23 is a key day in McLaren F1’s history.

Some 40 years ago, on October 23, 1976, James Hunt scored his dramatic first and only World Championship in the scintillating 1976 season in Fuji, as Niki Lauda retired early while Hunt scored just enough points to usurp “the rat” and win the title. The season, of course, served as the inspiration for Ron Howard’s Rush, which was released in 2013.

October 23, 2016 may go down as the day McLaren began to look like McLaren again in terms of results, as it matched its best result of the season with Fernando Alonso finishing fifth, and Jenson Button in ninth in what may have been his last United States Grand Prix in Austin.

Alonso charged from 12th on the grid up to fifth, with late passes on Felipe Massa and Carlos Sainz Jr. being particularly impressive, while Button made a strong start early from 19th to get near the top 10, and then benefited from other retirements to score points.

It’s tough that a 12-point day is considered a high-water mark for McLaren in 2016 terms, but this result in Austin has matched a similar fifth and ninth place for the two drivers in Monaco this year as McLaren’s best points haul of the season.

McLaren sits a clear sixth in the Constructor’s Championship on 74 points for the year. Williams is fifth with 130 while Scuderia Toro Rosso is seventh with 55. By contrast, McLaren only scored 27 points total last year, ending ninth in the Constructor’s Championship.

“It was good and interesting today, I enjoyed it, especially the final part of the race,” Alonso said in the team’s post-race release.

“Carlos [Sainz] was on a different strategy and different tyres to me and Felipe, which allowed us to close the gap.

“Our tires were in better condition than the Toro Rosso’s and we took advantage of that. The last couple of laps were very intense, as we had some extra speed so we tried hard to overtake. It was quite easy to overtake the Toro Rosso as they’re slow on the straights, so you just need to open the DRS. I was following Carlos for 45 laps and he drove very well, very consistently, zero mistakes – so we had a great battle.

“To get past the Williams today you needed to overtake them in different places, like tight, slow-speed corners, and quite forcefully, and it was tough but hopefully enjoyable for the fans.

“Our result today is nice for motivation, so I’m happy with fifth, but we gained a couple of positions because of other people going out, and our pace hasn’t been great all weekend here, so we need to understand the reasons for that.”

Button added the start was key for him to get into a points-scoring position.

“I’m pretty happy to get into the points after a frustrating day yesterday,” he said. “The start was a bit of a crazy mess – there was so much action. Starting 19th makes your race a little bit more difficult but I had a good first couple of laps which I really enjoyed. I made up a lot of places and then fought my way into the top 10, and then I fluffed up my second pit-stop a little bit where I lost a place to Checo [Perez], but I think he would have got past me anyway.”

Felipe Massa joins Race of Champions field in Miami

SUZUKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 06: Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams walks in the Paddock  during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 6, 2016 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Although his Formula 1 career will be over in just three more races, Felipe Massa will continue in competition at next January’s Race of Champions held in Miami.

With 11 Grands Prix victories in a nearly 250-start career dating to 2002 (didn’t race in 2003 and was injured second half of 2009), Massa will hang up his helmet at the end of the year.

But the Brazilian joins countryman Tony Kanaan this year once again for the RoC – as he did in 2004 in Paris.

PARIS, FRANCE - DECEMBER 4:  Tony Kanaan and Felipe Massa of Brazil pose for photographers prior to the Race of Champions at the Stade de France on December 4, 2004 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE – DECEMBER 4: Tony Kanaan and Felipe Massa of Brazil pose for photographers prior to the Race of Champions at the Stade de France on December 4, 2004 in Paris, France. (Photo by Bryn Lennon Getty Images)

“It’s a fantastic pleasure for me to participate in the Race Of Champions for another year,” Massa said in a release. “The event is a big challenge and it’s a great idea to have a race with the best drivers from all the different motor sport categories. I look forward to meeting up with my old friend and fellow countryman Tony Kanaan. In 2004 in Paris we made up a very good combination: he beat Sébastien Loeb and I beat Michael Schumacher until we were both given penalties for touching the guard rails too much…

“The atmosphere is special at the Race Of Champions too: you’re in the middle of the grandstands so you can hear all the fans and they can see all the corners. It’s a great feeling and great enjoyment for everyone. Even better it’s in Miami, which is one of my favorite places and somewhere I’ve always enjoyed going for holidays. So it’s a perfect combination and I’m really looking forward to it, especially to starting my new life after retirement!”

The list of confirmed RoC drivers for Miami thus far is below:

  • Sebastian Vettel
  • Tom Kristensen
  • Juan Pablo Montoya
  • Tony Kanaan
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay
  • Kurt Busch
  • Travis Pastrana
  • Petter Solberg
  • Felipe Massa

How Max Verstappen became Formula 1’s ‘Boaty McBoatface’

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing in the garage during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s United States Grand Prix in Austin will go down as a memorable race for a handful of reasons.

It may go down as the race that saw Lewis Hamilton begin a late surge that culminated in a fourth Formula 1 world championship. More likely, it will go down as a race that did wonders for the Circuit of The Americas as it broke its attendance record, exceeding all expectations with a little help from Taylor Swift.

While it will not be remembered as a classic grand prix, there were certainly periods of exciting on-track action and a number of impressive drives through the field. Fernando Alonso’s run to fifth for McLaren turned heads, while teammate Jenson Button rose from 19th to ninth. Perhaps the most impressive drive of all came from Carlos Sainz Jr. who, despite racing in a Toro Rosso with a year-old Ferrari engine, and despite the team’s own predictions having the Spaniard finishing 12th at best, wound up sixth.

And yet when we look back on the 2016 United States Grand Prix in years to come, none of those names will be listed as winning the ‘Driver of the Day’ award.

That honor went to Max Verstappen.

Verstappen drove a fair race. Or at least, half a fair race. Starting fourth, he slipped behind Kimi Raikkonen on the first lap to run fifth during the opening stint in Austin. Verstappen battled back past Raikkonen on Lap 13, and then closed up on the back of Nico Rosberg in third. The Dutchman told his team “I’m not here to finish fourth” when given the call to consider his pace, his tire wear causing concern for Red Bull. A radio mix-up meant Verstappen came into the pits on Lap 26 to find the Red Bull crew still hurrying to their positions, costing him masses of time. He did manage to take a place off Felipe Massa while fighting back, only to grind to a halt moments later when a gearbox issue arose while exiting Turn 11.

Max Verstappen passed two cars, fluffed a pit stop and took part in half a race before retiring. Any reasonable observer of Sunday’s race would know he was not the Driver of the Day.

Alas, when the votes were totted up from the public vote conducted on the official Formula 1 website, Verstappen came out on top for the third race in a row and the seventh time this season.

The new scheme launched at the beginning of the year has its merits. Formula One Management’s digital strategy has been massively impressive throughout 2016, with its Twitter account (@F1) in particular being livelier than ever and hugely engaging. The FOM archive is being put to good use with videos of classic moments in F1 history being shared on Twitter and Facebook regularly. The idea of a Driver of the Day vote was a step that looked to also give the fans something to engage with; a way to be heard.

At the start of the season, the Driver of the Day scheme was launched with a bump. Romain Grosjean won the voting for Australia, but it was Manor’s Rio Haryanto – a driver with enormous support in his native Indonesia – who had garnered the most votes. The result was given with the sidenote saying that multiple votes from the same source had been discounted.

Voting traditionally opened in the closing stages of a race, with the result being announced the next day, but this changed for Singapore. Voting now opened earlier and shut when the race finished, meaning a result could be given not long after the flag dropped. While being more immediate and encouraging fans to interact on Twitter mid-race, it also meant that the final result at the checkered flag could not be considered before voting.

So, that’s a backstory of how one of F1’s rising stars has matched a memorable internet meme this year.

That is how Max Verstappen became F1’s ‘Boaty McBoatface.’

Boaty McBoatface rose to internet popularity earlier this year when the British Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) invited the general public to come up with a name for its new $244 million polar research ship. A regional BBC radio presenter suggested ‘Boaty McBoatface,’ which duly went on to get over 120,000 votes; four times that of any other submission.

In the end, the fine print of the competition rules meant the NERC could pick the winning entry. The vessel was therefore called the RRS Sir David Attenborough, named after one of the UK’s most beloved and influential naturalists and broadcasters. One of the accompanying remote controlled submarines on the ship did, however, get called ‘Boaty McBoatface,’ while Attenborough himself was subject to a petition with over 2,000 signatures calling for him to change his name to Sir Boaty McBoatface “in the interest of democracy and humor”.

The whole affair was very amusing, but it suggested that the public cannot really be trusted in some instances, particularly online. In the age of internet memes and trolling, it is all too frequent to see well-meaning contests such as this descend into banter.

The F1 Driver of the Day vote has gone the same way.

The fact is that votes such as these are designed for human beings who are perfect. They are rational, understanding, conscious and able to see things from multiple angles. That way, you get a set of results, with the ones that are most popular coming forward as the ‘most correct’ (in the case of Driver of the Day, at least).

But we’re not perfect human beings. Fans won’t vote for the driver who they thought performed best. They’ll most likely vote for their favorite. And as Spa showed in August, Verstappen is the favorite for a huge and growing number of fans. It’s the same reason Haryanto gained the most votes for the opening award in Australia.

It is a shame, because the Driver of the Day vote is a great move by F1 to increase fan interaction. It’s something fans have been clamoring for years to get. At all of the previous races, the results may have been a little dubious, but there was always a half-decent argument for the winner. In Austin, it was frankly farcical that Verstappen won the vote.

It also sparks the bigger question about fan involvement in deciding the future of F1. We’re approaching a crossroads on the direction that it will take following Liberty Media’s acquisition of the series, and many fans want a greater say in things. Interests such as lower ticket prices and more accessible viewing on TV are certainly key in helping F1 grow, but when it comes to bigger things such as regulatory change, can fans really expect to have a say?

It is imperative that the Driver of the Day vote continue and be made an important part of the race weekend. Much like there is for pole positions or fastest laps, a small award at the end of the year for the driver with the most Driver of the Day nods would be fitting. It would give fans the chance to get their voice heard.

A good way to make things more serious would be to create a shortlist of drivers that can then be voted for via the F1 website once the race has been completed. This does cause problems of its own, as only so many drivers can be included. Earlier this year, we conducted a few ‘Driver of the Day’ polls on Twitter via the @F1onNBCSports account, where you can only have a maximum of four options. Naturally, we got tweets back saying: “Why isn’t this driver on the list?” – simply, we’d picked the four best-fitting.

So while it would not be without issue, a shortlist system would work well. A good idea here could be taken from soccer coverage in the UK, where the man of the match award in some cup competitions is actually selected by one of the commentators. There are a number of pundits (and even ex-drivers) in the paddock who would be well-placed to pick four or five drivers who they thought impressed in the race. This list then gets put on the F1 website, where fans go and vote. The winner gets picked from there.

While it may not be a truly democratic process, the Driver of the Day would at least have some kind of credence and argument in his favor. It would give the vote more legitimacy, and we would avoid a situation like Verstappen winning the vote in Austin.

Or, indeed, a Boaty McBoatface.